THIS PLACE IS LAYERED WITH CRUD,” JIM GRAHAM OF Graham Baba Architects said point-blank at his pitch for the makeover of the Seattle Center atrium food court last September. “This building started out as a 1939 armory. They drove tanks in the atrium during World War II. There was a rifle range in the basement. Let’s strip it back to its essence, search for its authenticity, and celebrate it.”

“The word celebrate was the aha! moment,” recalls Seattle Center director Robert Nellams. “The other firms pitching design proposals were all about covering up and hiding the building, marketing and signage. Graham Baba’s approach was, ‘You’ve got this funky old armory—let’s hug it to death.’ Jim knew we didn’t have the big money for the big gesture. So he told us, ‘When there is no money, you have to think.’ ”

Nellams knew to the penny just how little money there was to whip the dingy Center House food court into shape for the April 21 kickoff of the Next 50, the six-month-long series of festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. The fact that Graham Baba’s thinking was more about demolition than construction—not so much less is more as less is everything—sealed the deal. “There were four firms pitching that afternoon,” says Nellams, “and three of them got the equivalent of hearty applause. For Jim Graham it was like a standing ovation.”

Jim Graham and his partner Brett Baba, both in their mid-40s, have been getting a lot of standing ovations of late for their architectural striptease. They transformed an old Capitol Hill garage into the Melrose Market (a mini mall of foodie shops anchored by the laid-back, locavore restaurant Sitka and Spruce) and recast Ballard’s century-old Kolstrand Building, a former marine supply place, as an inviting complex of brick-walled shops and restaurants (including Staple and Fancy Mercantile and the Walrus and the Carpenter oyster bar). Call it adaptive reuse.

Call it creative recycling. Call it adding by subtracting or design on the cheap for lean times. The architecture studio that Graham and Baba started five years ago is small, fresh, edgy, and young—but they have found success in turning cruddy old buildings into magical, minimalist urban spaces.

Now they’re peeling away decades of incrustations from the enormous, forlorn Center House atrium. To Graham the place “felt like the vacant concourse of an airport terminal.” A stage juts incongruously from the northeast corner; a big gap in the floor disgorges a display of fake trees from a subterranean wing of the Children’s Museum; the restaurants clustered along the north and east sides run the gamut from Subway to Orange Julius to Kabab; long sagging green and blue awnings on the upper walls war with cheery cheesy murals; stage lighting and beams from skylights half a football field overhead meld in a harsh unflattering glow.

There’s a lot of history not only in the building itself but in the ongoing struggle to update it. Duke Ellington played here with his band during a 1941 UW junior prom; a “Food Circus” with 52 internationally themed fast food concessions occupied the space during the World’s Fair; the Bubbleator connected the various levels before being put out to pasture; all manner of community groups still sing and dance on the atrium stage. But the interior itself is awkward, to put it mildly. Before they started planning the Next 50, the Seattle Center had commissioned local architecture firm SRG to come up with a master plan that called for a $250 million face-lift for the Center House, complete with a glass roof and a roof-level restaurant; a wall of windows on the south side would overlook the spot now designated for the Chihuly glass museum. In the fantasy sketches, the born again Center House looks like a crystal cathedral, an ethereal shrine to fun times. “We were dreaming but not crazy,” concedes Nellams. “Given the current fiscal situation, we scaled back the glass roof and the grand gesture. We’re still on the path to that vision, but we’re phasing it.”

In the current phase, seven openings have been cut into the concrete structure—the four on the west side will become big glass doors connecting the former food court area to outdoor seating on a new terrace overlooking International Fountain; three holes in the soaring bank of windows on the south side will let in more natural light and unify the facade. Levy Restaurants, a Chicago company that provides food and drink to sports stadiums and arenas, has been hired to “elevate food service offerings.” As of now, instead of the original $250 million dream budget, $4 million have been earmarked to “refresh and reshape” the atrium, and they have three months to do it.